“Tea festivals” in Shanghai

If you have ever been to China or know of someone who has been, chances are you have heard of some type of scam for foreigners. Although I have witnessed scamming around the world, here are my experiences in Shanghai, where I stayed for two months.

Scamming or findings ways to get money from foreigners occurs throughout the world, and in certain touristic places in China, it can be quite easy to spot – however, only when you know what to look for.

At the end of 2012 I went to China for four months to volunteer in Guangzhou and Shanghai. My first two months in Guangzhou were amazing, and I felt comfortable travelling around the city and going to various places by myself. I had heard of other foreigners being scammed, but never believed I would fall for it. I took this  attitude to Shanghai, but I was still viewed as a fresh faced by the local citizens.

Once I arrived in Shanghai I spent the first few days meeting other interns I would be volunteering with and looking around the city. One afternoon I had nothing to do so I decided to travel to the Bund to have a look around by myself (the Bund is a waterfront area in central Shanghai, and centres on a section of Zhongshan Road, running along the western bank of the Huangpu River, facing Pudong. It is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Shanghai). Once I arrived, I took some photos  of the the area, but was soon approached by two twenty-ish women and one guy. They asked if I could take a photo of them, so I did and they offered to take a photo of me. Then they started a conversation with me, asking where I was from, how long I had been in Shanghai etc. We walked down the Bund chatting, and I found out they were from Beijing and were spending a few days in Shanghai, and could speak very good English. They mentioned they were going to a tea festival at the end of the Bund, so I walked down with them. Once we got to the end I said I had to go and they said goodbye (at this time I had no idea about ‘tea festivals’). When walking back another couple asked me to take a photo of them and vice versa, but after I said I had to go before they started a conversation.


My first photo taken by a ‘tea festival’ organiser

A few days later I decided to do some more exploring and ended up in YuYuan Garden. I spent an hour looking around and taking photos, and just before I was about to leave, I was approached by a couple who asked if I could take a photo of them. Again we exchanged the photo taking, and they asked me where I was from etc. I learnt that they were from Beijing and were spending a week in Shanghai. They mentioned they were going to a tea festival close by and asked if I would like to join. I had nothing else to do that afternoon and I said I had been invited to a tea festival before, but didn’t go (probably not the best thing to say). They insisted I went so I decided I might as well check it out. We crossed the road walking away from YuYuan Garden and came to a small door on the side of a house and knocked on it.


  • YuYuan Garden
  • YuYuan GardenYuYuan Garden


It was opened by a fairly large man who welcomed us into the house to watch the tea festival. We all crowded into a small room and the man bought in a platter of cups and tea boxes. He then explained each tea (black tea, jasmine tea, green tea etc), and we discussed (all of them spoke very good English). He asked which one we would like to try, or if we would like to try them all. I said I didn’t mind (another bad idea), and the couple suggested we try them all. He then went on to show us the proper way or drinking tea (how to rotate the cup and to drink it in three sips). There was also a statue on the table, which was called the Tea God, and was a frog with three legs, and changed colour when tea was poured on it. I later saw this statue at a market place in Shanghai and told my friends who Shanghai that this was a statue of a Tea God.. but they said it wasn’t (while writing this article, I looked for an image of the Tea God on Google, but could not find the same one). Anyway, after cups of tea, I started to realise this might be a scam – I had heard of similar scams involving drinking lots of expensive tea. I gathered I was in too deep already and would just wait and see what happens.

After we had tried all the types of tea, they asked if I would like to buy some of the packets of tea. They went through each of the teas, but I declined buying any of them (I thought this would be an expensive festival and didn’t want to increase the cost anymore). One of the people I came with did buy one large packet though. Then it came to pay. The man went through each of the teas, stating their cost. In the end it came to a total of approximately 2,400RMB (around NZ$400 with the exchange rate at that time). Luckily, the couple suggested that we split the total cost between the three of us (maybe because I was friendly to them – but there’s no way of knowing). So it turned out to be about 800RMB (NZ$130) each. Some foreigners who I’ve talked to got pretty angry after they got scammed and tried to get out without paying – for me, I was just glad that I had enough cash on me and that it wasn’t that expensive – it could have been a lot more expensive, and I was alone and no one knew I was there. So I paid and they gave me a Chinese knot as a gift. I still have this Chinese knot – I considered it one of the most expensive souvenirs I have! I don’t get too concerned about money, so I see this as more of a life experience and something to learn from, plus it makes a good story about my time in China.

Once I had paid, I left and said goodbye to the three of them. I headed back to the Bund and I was fortunate  to meet a couple of the other interns I was staying with. I told them about my little adventure and explained the scam – engaging a foreigner in a conversation by asking them to take a photo, then keep them talking and invite them to the festival. While we were walking around the Bund, we were not approached by any others, but this could have been because the two other interns were from Singapore and many Shanghai citizens mistook them for local Chinese.


  • ShanghaiA few photos from the area near the Bund
  • ShanghaiA few photos from the area near the Bund
  • ShanghaiA few photos from the area near the Bund


Over the next couple months I visited the Bund and touristic places fairly often, and always managed to spot other foreigners taking photos of locals in these places. I was approached a few more times, but I just left after taking their photos (I don’t like to be too rude), and wearing headphones is a good deterrent. There was one time I walked down the Bund and talked to another couple who were going to a tea festival (also from Beijing, visiting Shanghai for a few days, who spoke very good English). Although they were pretty persistent that I join, and that it would be very cheap, “we will only try one tea”, I faked receiving a text and had to meet my friends in the opposite direction.


  • Shanghai-at-nightShanghai at night
  • Shanghai-at-nightShanghai at night
  • Shanghai-at-nightShanghai at night
  • Shanghai-at-nightShanghai at night
  • Shanghai-at-nightShanghai at night


During the last few days that I was in Shanghai, I decided to go for another walk down the Bund and get another photo like the one I got when I first arrived (just as a comparison of my time there). I walked through Nanjing Road (another area that many people try to sell you things, and I did get hassled quite a bit when I arrived), without wearing headphones, but no one bothered to ask me. I arrived at the Bund and turned left and starting walking, again without wearing headphones. I managed to get to the end of the Bund without anyone asking for a photo, so I turned around. When walking back, I did see the persistent couple that had asked me to go to the tea festival with, but that I made an excuse to get out of (a number of weeks after they were supposed to be leaving). I made eye contact with them, but they looked away quite quickly. I ended up walking for about 40 minutes, but never got a photo (I did want a photo, and too see if I would get approached). Maybe it was because I went there too often and all the usual people recognised me, or maybe I just had the air of someone who knew what happened in this city, I will never know. I do know my experiences in China did change me and influenced my life decisions, and deciding to volunteer overseas was one of the best decisions of  my life. The good, the bad, the funny, the sad – all were important experiences that I learnt from. And that is all you can really take from in life, especially when you spent 800RMB on five cups of tea and a Chinese knot -.-



My very expensive souvenir from Shanghai


About the author

Kirk McDowall (NZCFS Youth)
Kirk McDowall (NZCFS Youth)

Hi I'm Kirk, and I'm part of the New Zealand China Friendship Society. I've spent time volunteering in Mainland China and currently (trying) to learn Mandarin. As a result, I joined the Society to be more involved in the Chinese community in Wellington. If you want to find out more about NZCFS Youth please contact us.


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  • Good effort for passing that on Kirk, Mate. It happens all over the world doesn’t it? And the best prevention is education. If you know about it, you can beware, so passing it on is good. I’m off to Kunming in September, so I’ll watch for the local version of that one when I’m there.
    You’re right to view it as a life experience, I think. I’m an old geezer and have travelled extensively but the next time I get ripped off won’t be the first and it won’t be the last. You just have to run with it, laugh it off and get the money back by way of beers bought for you in the pub back home as you tell a good honest yarn. There is always the consolation that the next dude that rips you off has to be smarter than the last one!

    • Yes that’s very true, it’s all part of life. Hope you have a great time in Kunming! You are more than welcome to send us some of your experiences for the website if you wish to share them. All the best!

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